A Brush With History: Ottawa artist sets up easel in ByWard Market horse stable to preserve colourful chapter of the capital's heritage
OTTAWA -- When Karen Bailey moved to a new apartment in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, she was delighted to discover some very interesting neighbours.
“I never thought that I’d be living in the centre of town right next to a horse stable,” said Bailey.
Bailey is referring to Cundell Stables; a family-run enterprise since the late 1800’s.
“That’s when my grandfather got into the horse business,” said owner John Cundell.
“I worked for my Dad all my life, so this is my life.”
Bailey, a celebrated artist, is always looking for inspired subject matter to paint. When she discovered Cundell’s right under her nose; or more precisely, the balcony of her Clarence St. condo, she couldn’t resist.
“I love it. It’s not going to be around forever, so I thought I want to document this,” she said.
“Every time I’d hear the clip clop of horses I’d run to my window and Iain, my husband, would say ‘Oh Karen the horses are out.’ And I’d be looking out and taking photographs, and it just became a bit of an obsession.”
The stable at the bottom of Karen’s condo is now at the centre of her latest artistic adventure. She’s capturing the gift of living history at Cundell’s by using her gifts with a paintbrush.
“I asked if I could go down to the stable and start painting from life. I think John Cundell teases me because I’m like a stalker. I’m following his every move,” Bailey said with a laugh.
Perched on a small stool, with her easel at her feet, Bailey captures a world of hay, horses, ponies and people. The sensorial splendour of the stable, Bailey’s artistic fuel.
“I think it helps enormously with the kind of work that I produce. You get a strong sense of place that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Always armed with bags of carrots, Bailey enjoys the perks of her workplace, taking breaks to feed her cooperative subjects; something you just can’t do in a traditional art studio.
“I just love bringing carrots to the little horses and there’s nothing like the feel of a horse’s soft mouth against your palm,” she said.
The horses and ponies are only one focus of Karen’s exploration; the people caring for them at Cundell’s, another.
“The whole point of the program is I want to follow the working life of the Cundell family. So that’s John Cundell, his partner, Patty Newton, their daughter Taylor, and the stable-hand John O’Hara. I’ve asked the Cundell family to sit for me for individual portraits as well.”
Bailey’s paintings are connecting Ottawa to its heritage, while helping Bailey get to know her hard-working friends, next door.
“It’s wonderful to get to know the neighbours. And through painting someone, you really begin to understand them and their life. I certainly see the tremendous importance of what they do for their community, and how community-minded the Cundell family are,” Bailey said.
“She does a real good job with the horses and the ponies and people,” said John Cundell.
“It’s going to be nice when it’s all together and when people can read the story and see what she did.”
Bailey received a grant from Heritage Ottawa to help pay for research related to the history of the Cundell family.
“I’m not a historian but I realized it was critical to tell that story. I hired a wonderful collaborator named Marc Aubin. He’s a young historian and a fifth-generation (ByWard) Market dweller. He’s researching and writing a history of the Cundell family and finding old photographs,” said Bailey.
“We’re going to put together a book; a catalogue of my paintings, reflecting the working life today of the Cundell family, and the history of the stables and business,” she said.
Bailey said she hopes to have her paintings completed by some time in 2022; her project providing a welcome distraction from the challenges of life during COVID-19.
“I would say, for me, this whole Cundell Stables project is a little piece of sanity. In a sense, I’m escaping. Looking after horses, looking after any animal, you forget there’s a pandemic because the work just has to be done. I watch the Cundells when the hay arrives and how they work so hard. It’s a cycle of life and everything carries on,” Bailey said.
“I think it’s a privilege that the Cundells have allowed me into their world.”